I love volunteering. In the past I volunteered for an international theater festival, women’s refuge, community foundation, grant committee, pride march and a fan convention to name a few. It gave me an opportunity to try my hand in a variety of roles that I may not have considered otherwise. It helped me to develop new skills, meet new people and even challenge my own biases and educate myself. I am a theater geek and some of my favorite plays I saw thanks to volunteering. I got to travel to interesting places and found friends for life but also contacts I later used at work. I got to do all of that while doing something meaningful and as such extremely rewarding.
So yeah, volunteering is great and everyone should try it but do you know what is the best part?
Volunteering showed me how the world could look without ableism.
Volunteer coordinator vs HR manager
I believe that there are a lot of similarities between the job of a volunteer coordinator and a HR manager. Both of them have to find an ideal candidate for the specific role but their approach to this task is totally different. While the volunteer coordinator looks for someone with the passion for the job and if needed a specific skill, the HR manager wants someone with recent experience in a similar role and most importantly someone able-bodied.
Now, they will never say the last part aloud of course. Not even in Slovakia where Equal opportunities forms don’t exist and disabled people are either self-employed or unemployed.
And yet we can still see it on their shocked faces when we walk or God forbid wheel ourselves in for the interview. We can still hear it in that “You were great, but unfortunately there was one candidate who was even better. If we had two places we would definitely take you, but alas…” phone call we get after every interview.
Volunteer coordinators were never turned into Munch’s famous painting when they saw me walking. I was never met with a tight smile of mistrust when I told them I can do something.
What are you saying? Volunteering is unpaid and so they cannot be picky? So you believe that disabled volunteers or even volunteers in general do a halfass job, am I right? Well I am sorry but you are utterly wrong. There are myriads of organizations and projects that wouldn’t be able to exist without volunteers. They do a wonderful job because they are passionate about it and they are often given more autonomy to be creative than they do at work.
I know how to solve problems, I am disabled!
One of the highest valued skills in an employee is the ability to solve unexpected problems. No one is better at this than disabled people, as living in an ableist society brings one unexpected problem after another.
You don’t believe me, do you? Ok here is an example: in 2015 I was volunteering at the International theater festival Divadelná Nitra. Since I speak Russian, I was asked to work as an interpreter and a guide for a Ukrainian theater troupe Sashko Brama.
They came to the festival with the retelling of Romeo and Juliet where the star-crossed lovers stood at the opposite sides of Majdan, and so for ideological reasons they refused to speak Russian. I completely understood and respected their decision, but the problem was that they didn’t speak English nor Slovak or Czech and I don’t speak Ukrainian. Russian and Ukrainian are quite similar in the same way Slovak and Czech are similar and so I suggested that I will speak Russian and they can speak Ukrainian and we will see how it goes. It wasn’t easy but in the end, I was able to help them to communicate with the staff at their hotel and with the technicians at the theater. We even discussed the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the role of art in activism during the breaks between performances.
I could have run off when I found out they won’t speak any language I know but I didn’t because unexpected challenges don’t faze me. And before you turn this into an inspiration porn about how disabled people don’t mind barriers because we like challenges let me stop you. Get rid of barriers and ableism and see what we could do if we wouldn’t have to use our creativity and energy for figuring out where to go to the toilet when we are out and about.
Keep the non-disabled designer, I prefer the best one
“Disabled people may be good enough for volunteering but to employ them would be too complicated because of all the accommodations they would need!” And you are wrong again. In all the places I volunteered at I needed some sort of accommodations: for example I needed to sit where a non-disabled person would be able to stand, other volunteers had to carry stuff for me or help me to get to inaccessible places etc.
“But that was unfair to them! They shouldn’t have to do that! At work everyone is busy and no one would be willing to do your job for you!” Wrong again (can’t you see the pattern? Every time you say something ableist it turns out you are wrong). I work in a Library and (get ready, this is going to blow your mind) my colleagues aren’t ableist and so they have no problem cutting out the decorations for the book display *I* am making, or closing the windows I am unable to reach. They aren’t doing my job for me, they are just being good team players. Last time I checked being a team player was a requirement for most positions.
“You have to admit that it is better to hire someone who can do everything without help!” Is it, though? Would you rather have a web designer who can do the best job, or the one who can do the job from the office? I prefer to have the best one. That’s why I chose someone who did it while lying in their bed at home.
We love to volunteer, we also love to eat
“If disabled people love volunteering so much, they should just stick to it. It’s not like you need to make money anyway!” Your commitment to being wrong is astonishing.
There are a lot of disabled people who indeed love to volunteer for the same reasons non-disabled people love to volunteer. It is meaningful, fulfilling and often fun. Not having to deal with ableism is just a very nice bonus. We still need to eat and pay bills. No, we cannot expect that our parents will take care of that. Do your parents pay your bills?
What was that, we get benefits? I am sure many of you had a chance to try living on benefits. How was it? Not that great? You were happy to find a new job? I thought so.
Disabled people are intelligent, talented, creative and hard-working. Volunteer coordinators know this and employers should learn it too, otherwise they might just miss out on the best candidate.